Shopping to Save the World – Consumer Republic by Bruce Philp

Bruce Philps wants shoppers to realise something: we hold all the power.

His book, Consumer Republic, argues that – far from being us being powerless passive consumers constantly buffeted by slick marketing – the brands that corporations spend millions to develop and maintain makes them accountable. Expensive to create and more public than anything else a corporation has or does, a brand is an enormously valuable and fragile asset to them. And we consumers have the power to make it worthless with just a few clicks and key-strokes.

Brands, says Philp, are the leverage the average consumer has with which to make a company behave itself. And he should know. Describing himself as a “advocate for brands”, he works as a marketing strategist to some of the world’s biggest brands, helping them create brands that are both profitable and sustainable. (“Profitable is easy, sustainable isn’t.”) His previously-published book, Orange Code, explains how the championing of consumers led to ING Direct’s revolutionary rise in the banking industry.

I caught up with Bruce to ask him a few questions about his book. Here, in the first part of my interview with him, he talks about the big Australian brands, the Aussie approach to consumerism and how to react to attacks on your own personal brand.

In Consumer Republic, you discuss – and contrast – European and American attitudes to branding and consumerism. How about the Australians?

Comparative data like the material I used in the “Europeans” chapter isn’t as easy to come by for Australia, unfortunately, so I can’t give you an empirical answer. But since my pundit license is current, I can share some impressions. My sense of the Australian consumer is that she has more in common with those in my home market of Canada than perhaps anyone else in the world. Both are suspended between the global influence of American brand culture on one side and, on the other, three moderating forces that are more European in character: hereditary Anglo reserve, healthy suspicion of social climbing, and a cultural preference for working to live rather than living to work.

What this produces is a muted version of American consumerism, wherein we still lust for things and often spend more than we ought to, but there is also still some social currency in understatement and a resistance to forced social consensus.  That seems to be the attitude, anyway, to a casual observer. Still in all, it’s worth pointing out that Australians have in the past had among the highest ratios of household debt to disposable income in the world. Whatever the various contributors to that number are, it certainly has to be construed as a warning that perhaps consumerism needs moderation there, too, and that perhaps more of us in the world resemble the pre-2008 American consumer than we’d like to think.

What’s your favourite and least favourite Australian brand?

My favourite Australian brand is that of Australia itself. I am in awe of how clearly it seems to understand its nation-brand, at least to those of us in the rest of the world. It is extremely comfortable with its distinctiveness and with the virtue in that distinctiveness. It’s impressive enough that so many people dream of living there despite the fact that apparently everything in nature wants to kill you (I owe this characterization to my daughter whose heart has been stolen by an Australian man). But I also think it’s an admirable model for branding of any kind. If I had to choose a more typical consumer brand, I’d have to say that I greatly admire Billabong. It’s achieved global brand status in a tough product category, and seems to be staying on top of its game.

As for a least favourite, I don’t think I have one. But forced again to answer, I might choose Foster’s in its global brand guise. In export markets, this brand’s advertising has often made some pretty ham-fisted use of its Australian heritage, doing neither it nor Australia’s brand any favours at all.

How do you react when people diss your brand on social media – slag off your book or blog? In this age of “personal branding”, do you think we need to vigilant or get over ourselves?

The best way for anybody to approach the social media space is the way public relations people have always approached the world: Decide on your reaction by first assessing the credibility of the attacker. As has always been true, there are times when it’s best not to rise to the bait because the dissers are either hopelessly unreasonable and shrill, or they are lonely voices in the social media wilderness.

Often, though, if a criticism is well reasoned and legitimate, you can accomplish a lot by engaging with the critic. For one thing, it’s amazing how things can suddenly get very polite when something like this turns from a speech into a public conversation. For another, any brand that lives online – and we all do – has to bear in mind that everything that’s said about it becomes part of the internet’s canon. Too much criticism, unanswered, becomes what people will find in the future when they Google you, so to speak. Engagement is, in the crudest terms, a way to make sure that the good scraps of information about you floating around out there in cyberspace outweigh the bad.

So, yes, I’m vigilant (technology like Google Alerts makes this very easy), but I try not to get too paranoid about it. I try to respond to every serious blog comment and every Twitter mention, and will for as long as it’s practical.

Consumer Republic will be released on March 28th, but you can pre-order now from Boomerang. We’ll be posting the rest of the interview, including Bruce’s advice to aspiring specialist writers looking to pen their thoughts on their field, on Friday.

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Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.